German parties edge toward coalition decision

BERLIN — They’ve done the dating, now they have to decide who they want to get serious with.

Germany’s main political parties on Tuesday completed an initial round of bilateral talks about possible coalitions following last month’s general election, in which the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) scored a narrow victory over outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU/CSU bloc.

A coalition led by the SPD and its candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), is widely seen as the most likely next government. All three parties gained votes in the election and polls show Scholz, the current finance minister, is by far the most popular choice for chancellor.

But the CDU/CSU, despite suffering its worst-ever election result, has also been holding talks with the Greens and the FDP as a coalition between the three parties would also have a majority in parliament.

The fact that they could put either of the bigger parties into the chancellery has given the two smaller parties considerable leverage, as Armin Laschet — the beleaguered leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) — acknowledged after talks with the Greens on Tuesday.

“We had a good exchange,” he said, stressing the potential for future collaboration. “But the FDP and the Greens will of course decide whether this goes any further.”

The election presented the most fractured party landscape in recent memory. The SPD reversed years of electoral decline to come in first with 25.7 percent, the CDU/CSU dropped 8.9 percentage points from the last election in 2017, winning just 24.1 percent. The Greens and FDP increased their vote share to 14.8 percent and 11.5 percent, respectively.

The Greens and FDP are planning to discuss their options within their respective parties and with each other. Their choice of potential coalition partner, which should be announced in the next few days, will pave the way for formal talks. 

That decision will follow what has looked like a round of political speed dating. Last Tuesday, two days after the election, Greens’ co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck met FDP leaders Christian Lindner and Volker Wissing (a gathering that produced not just a statement about common ground, but a joint Instagram selfie to accompany it). 

Over the weekend, talks with the two major parties followed: SPD leaders sat down with both the Greens and the FDP, and on Sunday, the CDU/CSU met with the FDP. Tuesday’s meeting between the CDU/CSU — also known as the Union — and the Greens completed the set.

Nobody is ruling anything out at this point. The Greens’ Baerbock said in a statement Tuesday after their talks with the CDU/CSU that the discussions had been “constructive and thorough” and that they’d found plenty of places where they could cooperate.

But many signs point to a so-called “traffic light” coalition, which gets its name from the colors of the three parties that would take part.

A Forsa poll out Tuesday found that a majority of voters, 53 percent, would be in favor of such a coalition, compared with just 22 percent who want to see a government of CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP, sometimes known as a “Jamaica” coalition as the parties’ colors match those of the Jamaican flag.

The CDU’s chances are also undermined by infighting over the party’s poor election result, with many pointing the finger of blame at Laschet.

Some CDU politicians — especially in Germany’s East, where the CDU/CSU did particularly badly — have declared that they don’t have a mandate to govern and some have openly declared that it’s time for Laschet to go.

The Forsa poll found that 80 percent of voters and 70 percent of CDU/CSU supporters expect Laschet to take responsibility for his party’s losses and resign. And if a Jamaica coalition were possible, about two-thirds of both voters and CDU/CSU supporters believe it should be led by Markus Söder, leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), rather than Laschet.

Meanwhile, 52 percent of those surveyed overall believe Scholz should be the next chancellor, compared with just 9 percent for Laschet.

Greens leaders have been open about the fact that they have far more in common policy-wise with the SPD than they do with the CDU/CSU, and some within the party have expressed skepticism about a Jamaica coalition. The party’s youth wing has come out against such a government, and Forsa found that an overwhelming majority (90 percent) of Greens voters want to govern with the SPD instead.

In addition, a spat over leaked details from the CDU/CSU’s meeting with the FDP on Sunday that made their way into the press — allegedly from the Union side — had both Greens and FDP leaders questioning the professionalism of the center-right bloc. Shortly before Tuesday’s talks, Greens politician Cem Özdemir said the leaks were a “sign of internal leadership problems.” 

For the FDP, the policy differences are far easier to bridge with the CDU/CSU than with the SPD. But their leaders blasted the CDU/CSU over the leaks — a possible sign that the Free Democrats are preparing the ground to abandon their more natural allies in favor of talks with the SPD.

Out of the various rounds of talks the FDP held, party deputy chair Johannes Vogel tweeted on Monday, only the CDU/CSU meeting ended up detailed in the press: “That’s conspicuous, dear Union— and it’s annoying!”

Lindner, like leaders of the other parties, has said he wants things to be resolved as quickly as possible: “The FDP wants a speedy government formation by mid-December,” he told Bild newspaper at the weekend.

Laurenz Gehrke contributed to this report.

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